Desensitizing a Horse
My Appendix Horse, Scooter is still new to most things. I have had him since September 2010 and that was when his training with me began. He was seven years old at the time with only about thirty or so days of riding under him. He came to me as a well mannered horse with barely any riding experience. He lived on the same farm for those seven years, maybe only leaving once or twice until he came to live with me. Now he has been to many different states, clinics, arenas etc. Everything is still a learning process for him and getting used to different things can sometimes be a challenge.
I was riding on a nice cool winter day nearing the end of December 2011 when Scooter and I came to a point on a trail where a plastic bag was caught on a small branch. We were trotting in our goat field which scooter is very familiar with. This plastic bag however he was not to fond of. As we nearned the bag Scooter raised his head, eyes and ears alert letting out a quiet snort. I could tell right away he did not want anything to do with the bag. Knowing this I had him trot right over to it so he could realize it ment no harm. There was a slight breeze and has Scooter came in to smell the bag it moved. So did Scooter. He tried to turn and run but only got a step or two away before I had him facing the bag again. The bag moved yet again and Scooter tried to get away once more.
I hopped down off Scooter, walked him over to the bag and began moving it with my hand so he could see it would not hurt him. Scooter still did not want to be near the bag. I took the bag off of the branch it was on, crumpled it up so it was smaller and less "scary" then began gently rubbing Scooter with it on his neck. Scooter started moving away from the bag so I followed him and we were making small circles. I let him smell it a couple times allowing him to stop and take it all in. He was getting a little bit more used to it but I could tell it would take a lot longer for him to not be afraid.
Crumpling the bag up into my fist, I hopped back on Scooter. I began rubbing Scooter down with the bag while on him. Lets just say he did not enjoy this very much. He would side pass and try to get away from the bag. I kept him steady with leg pressure and the reins without pulling back on his mouth since that would freak him out more. Finally getting him to be okay with one bag in my hand, an idea struck me. I said to Scooter "You're afraid of plastic bags, ay? Well, no worries boy I'll go get three more."
After riding back to the house, I saw that my mom was outside which meant I wouldn't have to come out of the field and go in the house myself. I called to my mom and told her Scooter was afraid of this plastic bag, waving it in the air. Then I asked her if she could go get me three more. Coming back with three more bags my mom knew I was going to desensitize Scooter whether he liked it or not.
I tied a bag on both sides of Scooters breast collar, under his chin and I held the last bag. Staying on the ground I had Scooter stand and relax and I started to wave the bag in my hand around. At this point Scooter was becoming used to the bags. He did not move very much other than a flinch or two. I took the bag and gently rubbed his face, over his eyes and ears. In a sense I was forcing him to get used to plastic bags. After he was relaxed, I got back on and rode around with the bags still tied to him and one in my hand, making sure to trot so that the bags would move with the wind and make noise.
Once Scooter was okay with the plastic bags tied to him and me holding one, I tied the one that was in my hand on a stick. I carried the stick with me while I rode. This way I was able to put the bag right next to his face as we trotted along. I was very careful not to allow to stick to poke or hurt Scooter because then he would associate pain with the bags, making the desensitizing harder. Eventually Scooter was fine with the bags all around him.
This process that I went through with Scooter took about an hour or more. I took my time with Scooter to make sure I did not scare him rather than allow him to get used to the plastic bags. The next couple times I rode Scooter I had the plastic bags still tied to him so he can continue to get used to them. In fact we did some barrel racing drills with them tied on and he did great! I will continue to desensitize Scooter to new sights and sounds. The key to desensitizing a horse is patience. Be calm and gentle with your horse and you will get a positive response.
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